The Congress and the Power of Purse

The power of the purse is the ability of a certain group to control or stage-manage the actions of another group by putting their funds in custody or giving stipulations on how to use the funds (Oscar, 1970). To fund an entity either public or private is to provide aid in terms of money. The funds are allocated for varying periods. For instance, hospitals and other health centers have along been assisted financially through health funds. Funds may be given in form of grants, donations (gift), revenue tax, and savings or as a loan from individuals, other countries, or well-wishers institutions. The power of purse may be positive or negative depending on the merit of the company. For instance, when the power of the purse is used positively, the certain program that attains merit are awarded by additional funds to run their programs. On the other hand, when negatively applied, funds are withdrawn or eliminated from those programs below certain benchmarks. The forces that influence the power of the purse are not directly involved in excising executive power but those who manage or control budgetary and taxations (Carey & Wahlbeck, 2009).

In the United States, the power of the purse plays a vital role between the congress and the president. The government comprises two bodies referred to as the House of Representatives and the Senate. The two entities form the Congress (a bicameral legislative). In addition, the Senate and the House are elected by the people of the United States through direct voting. The House of Representatives and the Senate are 435 and 100 in number, respectively. However, the two groups serve in congress for a specific duration of time. The House of Representatives serves for only two years whereas the Senate serves for 5 years. Also, there are two Senate members in each state not considering the representation number (Fitzgerald, 1915). The amount of money to be appropriated is left to Congress to decide through its structured procedures and organization. The constitution not only does it fails to mention the appropriation committees but it also fails to differentiate it from authorizations.

Congress established the appropriation committees after the civil war. Before the establishment of the appropriation committees, the House had appointed the ways-and-means committees to account for both the appropriations and the state tax. The pressure of the 1865 Civil War paved way for the House of Representatives to reassign the financial responsibility to the newly created appropriation committees (Ferguson, 1961). The appropriation committee gained popularity and power that led to resistance and resentment from the House of the representative. In 1885, the House stripped the appropriation committee much of their power giving some to the Senate side to handle the appropriation bills. Throughout the nineteenth century, the federal government generally ran budget surpluses, enabling it to liquidate the revolutionary war debts inherited from the states (Pressman, 1996). This led to a string of government deficits and prompted a thorough investigation of the budget. A decision to centralize the appropriations power to a single committee in each house was reached. The study expected that tighter control of the federal spending and deficit will result from such a single committee. That need was driven home with particular urgency because of the magnitude of federal financing after World War I (Johnson, 1910).

Congress exercises not only political power but also the power of the purse. This arm of government keeps a close check over the financial and budgetary methods of the United States. In the same docket, it functions as a tax collector from institutions and manages the fund by paying debts, providing the general welfare, defense of the United States as well as controlling the government spending. In general, the President of the United State is not allowed to use money without first consulting Congress. When the government proposes a bill it has to be sanctioned by Congress. The latest amendment provided the Congress with power to include the income tax in their docket. In addition, congress regulates commerce and trade within the United States and also with other countries. It however has the right to borrow money on behalf of the United States of America. Apart from the legislative role, Congress also functions as a non-legislative body. This includes overseeing the functioning (working) of the government and may also investigate if misconduct is suspected on the executive branch. The role is referred to as Congressional oversight in which the powers are handed over to the select committee, special committee, or standing committee, referred to as congressional committee.

The congressional committee is composed of members from both houses. What’s more is that Congress has a sole role over the removal, impeachment, and removal of the President (Oscar, 1970). The powers of Congress have been rated as the most powerful in the United States of America. The United States Constitution attempts to avoid the British history of civil war and bloodshed by vesting the power of the purse wholly in Congress. Under Article I, Section 9, “No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law.” In Federalist No. 48, Madison explained that “the legislative department alone has access to the pockets of the people” (Ferguson, 1961). The president of the United State is the commander in Chief but the Congress has the powers in funding (either positively or negatively) military operations. However, the Constitution does not give the President who is Commander in Chief to instigate and carry on wars. This however is the fundamental principle of democrats who believe that those who conduct the war cannot be good judges whether the war is started or concluded (Whiteclay, 2000). The power of the purse is also the significant tool by which Congress can put boundaries on the executive power.

For instance, the Foreign Assistance Act of 1974 played a critical when it eliminated all funding for the military group that was sent to fight in South Vietnam (Kucinich & D-Ohio, 2007). This eventually brought the famous Vietnam War to halt. Congress also declined to continue with the funding of U.S. troops during President Reagan’s tenure in office. This led to the withdrawal of U.S. Marines and troops from Lebanon (Banks & Raven-Hausen, 1994). Any government’s political significance is reflected by the power it exercises. On the other hand, there is a need to keep a check on the right, left, and center of the government to limit its power to use public funds when necessary. This has led the American Congress to house enormous powers that keep balances and checks in the budgetary of America. The Congress wields explicit powers as well as a wide range of powers referred to as implied powers.

The constitutional have also on several occasions undergone amendments to include novel powers of the Congress. It has been observed that some nation’s disturbances are due to frivolous issues. Congress’s role is to encounter such autocracies of such nations or individuals by declaring war. Congress wholly passes a bill, to or not to send the U.S. Army to fight with another country’s troops (Grier, 2007). Congress carries a multifunctional task each day. People may think that not much is accomplished as we view activities progressing slowly in Washington. Inside Washington, Congress deals with complex matters involving the diverse nation (America) and the whole world. The most important result is that Congress effectively conquers the problems annually reaching a platform of agreement in setting the national priorities of the Americans efficiently. The overall work is difficult, time-consuming and it reflects the importance of budgetary matters in the United States. Seemingly, most of the bills discussed in the house are budget-related (Hamilton, 2008).


Anonymous. (2002). Congress controls decision over war or peace. Human Events. Web.

This article explains that the Constitution as it was written by the founding fathers of the United States rest the authority of going to war or not solely to the Congress. The Congress will decide to go to war against Iraq or not. The author also explains how the Constitution restraints the central government by limiting its power. The President is not allowed to raise taxes unilaterally since the Constitution gives the taxing power to the Congress.

Banks, C. & Raven-Hausen, P. (1994). National security law and the power of the purse. New York: Oxford University Press. Web.

The Authors, William Banks and Peter Raven-Hansen are from Syracuse University and The George Washington University, respectively. In the book, National security law and the power of purse, they have described the model of national decision-making involving the Congress and the National security. The congress utilizes the power of purse to either ratify or restrict what the executive (President) branch has done. The book also address the Constitutional and statutory questions regarding the power of purse and the National security policy.

Carey, M. P. & Wahlbeck, J. (2009). The Power of the Purse: Judicial Pay Raises and Congressional Control over the Judiciary. Web.

Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association 67th Annual National Conference, The Palmer House Hilton, Chicago, IL Online <APPLICATION/PDF>. The Congress exercises the power of purse and therefore it determines who including the judiciary may get a pay rise in their salary. However, it cannot decrease the judiciary pay but can decline to increase their salary due to inflation among other factors. The judicial pay may vary on the basis of federal budget, inflation as well as their workload.

Ferguson, J. (1961). The Power of the Purse: A History of American Public Finance, 1776-1790. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press. Web.

Ferguson examines the history of Revolutionary America with questions of government finance, taxation and debt payment. He further elaborates the United States financial history tracing both the political and constitutional progress of the nation in terms of the issues of the public finance.

Fitzgerald, J. J. (1915). American Financial Methods from the Legislative Point of View. Municipal Research, 62(5), 299-326. Web.

John Fitzgerald was the chairman of the House Committee on Appropriations in 1915. In his research paper he wrote about the Speaker of the house, Joseph Canon of Illinois who used the power of recognition to curb spending. The bill though supported by two-thirds of the members was exorbitant. After Canon learned this, he notified the chair that he will not recognize him during proceedings. Cannon is reported to have said: “I will not recognize any one to move to suspend the rules to pass that bill, but if two-thirds of this House has the courage of its convictions, as indicated in that petition, it can remove me as Speaker, and put in a Speaker who will acquiesce in their wishes and pass the bill”.

Grier, P. ( 2007). How Congress might rein in US war policy; it has often fallen short of its aims when taking on presidents over military matters. The Christian Science Monitor, p. A1.Web.

Peter Grier is a staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor. In this article he writes about the heated debate between the Congress and the White House over the Iraq war. He compares this confrontation to that of Vietnam War terming the US constitution as the fundamental aspect when it comes to war.

Hamilton, L. (2004). Congress and the Power of the Purse. The Center on Congress at Indiana University. Web.

Lee Hamilton is the Director at the Center on Congress at Indiana University which is a non-partisan educational institution seeking to improve the public’s understanding of Congress. Mr. Hamilton describes the power of the purse as the ability to set the spending and taxing policies of the nation. He also states that it is the most important power that Congress possesses as it checks the power of the President and gives vast influence over American society, because federal spending reaches into the life of every citizen. He quotes James Madison when claiming the importance of the power of the purse as follows, “…the most complete and effectual weapon with which any constitution can arm the immediate representatives of the people…”. He states that the process of determination of the national budget is usually the most important responsibility that Congress deals with on a yearly basis, although the process can be very complex and arduous.

John Whiteclay Chambers II. (2000). Congress, War, and the Military. The Oxford Companion to American Military History. Oxford University Press. Web.

The authority of the members of the Congress to declare war changed dramatically after the World War II as President claimed the power back as he was the commander in chief. Congress claimed the docket back by passing the War Powers Resolution bill which brought a lot of controversy. However, the delegates to the Constitutional explicitly lodged the powers to the Congress. The Congress was set as an authorizing body of war and the President to send his troop to war. Article 1, section 9, of the U.S. Constitution stipulates that “No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law.” This clause charges the Congress to “raise and support Armies” as well as “provide and maintain a Navy”. This gives the branch a powerful say over the budgetary structure of the military.

Johnson, A. (1910). American Budget-Making. Yale Review, 18, 363, 367.

Allen Johnson was a professor of Bowdoin College. In 1910 he wrote that matters of appropriations development were lamentable dispersion of responsibility. No one committee can properly be held to account for congressional extravagance. Each committee has within its purview only the expenditures contemplated for a single object or group of objects.

Oscar, K. (1970). The President versus Congress: The Keep Commission, 1905- 1909. Western Political Quarterly, 23(3), 5.

In his book Oscar Kraine gives a description of the Keep Commission and President Theodore Roosevelt. The president was involved in the commission work from start to finish. Not surprisingly, the work of the Keep Commission met a mixed response from members of the Cabinet and Congress. Since the Keep Commission was investigating a number of departments and agencies, the hint of scandal and misbehavior was present, making some departmental Secretaries uneasy and uncooperative. This further generated a disparity of issues between the President and the Congress. The Congress believed that oversight of administrative agencies was properly their responsibility, not the responsibility of the President.

Pressman, L. (1996). House vs. Senate: Conflict in the Appropriations Process. Yale: University Press.

In October 1962, the Senate passed a continuing resolution to supply funds for the department of agriculture. The House promptly passed a resolution charging that the Senate’s actions “contravenes the first clause of the seventh section of the first article of the Constitution and is an infringement of the privileges of this House…” Three days later the Senate issued a resolution of its own, contending that “acquiescence of the Senate in permitting the House to first consider appropriation bills cannot change the clear language of the Constitution nor affect the Senate’s coequal power to originate any bill not expressly ‘raising revenue’…

Rep. Kucinich, J., & D-Ohio (10th CD). (2007). Congress must vote down supplemental; only way to end war is to stop funding it. US Federal News Service. Web.

Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) asked the Congress to oppose the Iraq supplemental appropriations bill. He cited a federal court case which states that ‘the only way to end a war is to cut the funding’. “A vote for the supplemental is a vote to reauthorize the war all over again,” Kucinich said. “Congress has constitutional authority to deny the President the authority to go to war and to cut off the funds and end this war. Each appropriations approval is a vote to continue the Iraq war.”

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